Become a Better Artist: The Role of Criticism

An art teacher’s take on the role of criticism in improvement.

In this excerpt from the ConverSapiens podcasts, art teacher Chris Screws answers questions about the most common errors of beginner artists, the role of personal expression in their work, and the goal of the artist. We also discuss shape drawing and learning to observe like an artist to overcome the ingrained symbolic representations we all carry from childhood.

Anytime you go into a studio class, you’ll hear this from the teacher. They’ll say, “You need darker darks and lighter lights.” That’s because so many beginner artists wind up with flat pieces that lack in contrast. Do you have any ideas as to why that might be?

I definitely have my theory. This will be my 19th year teaching, so I think I’m thinking pretty on it. It’s fear. They’re afraid of making a mistake. They’ve gotten the piece it to a certain point where it looks okay, and it may even be better than they thought it was going to be. They don’t want to push it too hard because they fear they will mess it up. I see it as fear, first and foremost.

It could also come from a lack of vision. The student may not know what they need to do to get their work to the place where I think it needs to be. A more experienced artist would see where it needs to go, but they don’t know what it should look like. A good way to help those students see what’s missing is to use your cell phone camera. If we take a photograph of whatever it is they’re trying to draw and make it black and white, then take a picture of their drawing and take it to black and white, they can put those two pictures side by side and it becomes clear. At that point, they’re able to go back and darken things up. Color is very distracting.

How do you see the artists’ personality manifesting in their work?

In the later classes I can see it more, because at that point they’ve acquired their skills and are able to put their personality into the work. That could come out in the medium they choose — those who might want more control are going to gravitate towards drawing, because it’s more controllable, where those who are a little more expressive might go towards paint. Color palettes are definitely affected as well. In our AP Art class, I tell my students that the types of materials you use should backup your concepts or ideas. The artist has to come up with a question they’re asking themselves. Those questions should lead to a sustained investigation of a certain concept. We talk about material choice, color use, mark making, etc. All those choices affect what your goal is, and your personality naturally guides how you make them. So definitely, you can see their personality in their work at every level.

I saw this little comic online. It depicted a painter who was showing their work, which was was a canvas with some abstract expressionist lines on it. A second character looks at the work and says, “That looks bad!” The artist responds indignantly, saying “Oh, so you’re judging how I feel?” Being an art teacher who has to judge artworks on a regular basis, how do you respond to that? How do you balance the personality and feelings of the artist with a judgement of their work?

I would want to know what the goal was. What’s the goal of this piece? It’s true that there are certain design aesthetics. We have our principles of design, or elements of art that, as an art educator, we might use to have a checklist of what’s expected. Do we have good balance? Do we have good line use? Good color choices? Is it pleasing to the eye? We can kind of grade it on an academic scale, but as far answering whether it’s a good or bad piece of art, what’s the goal?

So you would judge an artwork based on what the goal was and how well the artist achieved the goal?

In the classroom, for sure. Out in public, if I was showing in an art show with other artists, there will definitely be pieces that I’m going to gravitate towards more than others. It could be because they have similar aesthetics to me. Honestly it’s usually not. The more similar your art is to mine, the less I’m attracted to it. But if a piece is missing its own goal, or if it’s not reaching those elemental expectations, in the academic setting, I might think that’s not a successful piece of art. Not that it’s bad or good, but maybe it’s not as successful as it could be.

I think that whoever made that cartoon has a point, but then there’s also everyone who has ever had to critique art, and they also have a point. I’m curious how much weight the artist’s explanation should have on those judgements.

Well you shouldn’t have to explain your art.

So it should speak for itself?

To me, yes. That’s a goal of mine. I should not have to explain what’s happening. In my brain, I run down my checklist of things that would make a successful piece of art and ask, does it have that?

What are some of those things that make a successful piece of art?

We talked about contrast earlier, about work looking too light or flat. Contrast is definitely a goal of mine. I want the images to pop, for lack of a better word. I want them to stand out. And contrast can be with lightness and darkness of color, it can be contrast of textures, contrast of line; it depends on what I’m making, but that’s a big one for me. Composition is also huge, and that goes across the board, from a beginning level to the advanced levels. Composition is the layout on your design. That’s everything. Is it balanced? There are plenty of rules, like the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is crucial.

Learn how to draw shapes directly from Chris on his YouTube channel!

I’ve been watching some of your YouTube channel, Create Art with Chris. You’re videos are great, by the way.

Thank you. I love it! It’s been fun to do. It’s a new medium for me to play around with.

Let’s say that I am a new student of yours on YouTube. I just started watching your videos and I’m trying to learn how to draw. What is key for beginning to learn how to draw? What should I focus on first?

You have to learn how to see. You have to learn how to observe. If you can’t do that, you can’t pick apart your pieces to understand what went wrong.

How do I go about learning how to see?

I actually have a lesson in one of my previous videos that’s about shape drawing, and the whole goal is to draw what you see, not what you think you see. In that video, I take a copyright free photo of a bird that I found on Google, and I break it down into its most basic components. We’re not necessarily talking about the anatomy of the bird…. I’m talking about the basic structure of how to represent the bird in a drawing. As the artist this is how you examine that particular photograph to break it down into more attainable shapes. From those base shapes, you can add texture, detail, and shading later. Learning how to see what’s there in its most basic form is crucial.

Do you have student’s work with upside down drawings in your classes?

I have before, if I have a student whose brain is fighting themselves, who keeps drawing the same symbol of an idea. That’s what happens in those early stages. A lot of beginners will draw a symbolic representation of what they think their subject should look like. No matter what level of experience you have, when you were a kid, you probably drew a face. So you start drawing what you did when you were in sixth grade, because that’s usually about where your natural art education stops. We have to just get rid of that symbolic representation and actually examine what’s in front of us. If that’s just not clicking, you can absolutely turn what you’re drawing upside down, if you’re using a photographic reference. It does work, and it gets you of your symbol drawing habits. The end product doesn’t always look great, but it’s going to be closer to realism then what it was previously.

Yes, everyone has the symbol that they draw for a house, but you can’t go into that house… It would fall down!


Check out the full conversation with Chris by listening to episode one of ConverSapiens! Listen to it right here, or find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast platform.

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